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When 19-year-old Pramod Gavit enrolled in an Industrial Training Institute to train as a computer operator in 2019, he expected his scholarship to tide him over until he began earning. But over a year in, most of his reimbursements are delayed. Worse, now there is talk that the scholarship, meant for high-school Dalit students, will be wound up altogether.

“I have already paid so much out of pocket by taking loans from people in the community," the Pune resident said. “I had expected I could study on a scholarship without worry, but it has been a greater source of worry for me than my actual course work."

The Post-Matric Scholarship for Scheduled Castes caters to over six million students like Gavit as of 2018-19. The scheme provides scholarships to students from the scheduled castes (SC) to help them complete schooling and take up higher education. Students from families that make less than 2.5 lakh annually are eligible.

Delays are not new to the scheme. Parliamentary standing committees have regularly hauled up the Department of Social Justice over long-pending arrears. By 2018, arrears in scholarship payments had mounted to 88% of the total budget allocated to the department that year, the non-partisan PRS Legislative Research found.

The scheme is described as centrally sponsored, but for much of its recent existence, states had to shell out around 40% of the funding. This was under a “committed liability" fund-sharing formula. The terms of this formula after the 12th and last five-year plan ended in 2017 have resulted in a heavier burden on states, with some now having to pick up to 90% of the funding share for the scheme.

Many states are unable to bear this burden, and Dalit advocacy groups say the scheme is fallen into dysfunction. Students have seen their admissions stalled, and many, such as Pramod Gavit of Pune, face rising uncertainty. Some institutions such as Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University have asked SC students to declare that they will pay the fee themselves if the scholarship does not arrive.

“Across the country, students have not received their scholarships as states are not able to shoulder the burden and the scheme now stands in danger of being wound up completely," Beena Pallical, general secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, said.

The consequences could be far-reaching. Over the decades, affirmative action has clearly boosted the educational achievements of Dalit children. In a study based on 5,600 rural sub-districts and 2,300 cities and towns, Sam Asher of Johns Hopkins University and his co-authors found that affirmative action helped SC boys close 50% of the educational gap with forward castes.

Affirmative action means even more for higher education. In 1976, SC lists were harmonized across states for the first time, handing the SC status to 2.5 million more people. Guilhem Cassan, an economist at the University of Namur in Belgium, compared the educational levels of those who had the SC status since Independence with that of school-going children newly classified as SC. He found that overall, quotas had raised the educational attainment among the first group, but the effect was much smaller at higher education levels.

From that low base, the scholarship programme has helped raise enrolment of SC students in higher education, said Sukhadeo Thorat, professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is what makes Dalit rights groups anxious about the funds squeeze for the Post-Matric Scholarship.

Yet, gaps remain between the higher education enrolment rates of Dalit and other students. Of the top 10 universities in the country as ranked by the National Institute Ranking Framework, just three have filled up the 22.5% seats reserved for students from the scheduled castes or tribes. At the Indian Institutes of Technology, under 19% of enrolled students in 2018-19 were SC or ST. This share was just 16% at the Indian Institutes of Management and under 20% at the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences.

The post-matric scholarship scheme allows poor Dalit children to study in any college of their choice, even the elite ones that might otherwise be out of reach. But for Gavit, and many others, lack of clarity over reimbursements is giving rise to second thoughts about studying further. For particularly poorer ones, this could mean dropping out of higher education altogether, Thorat warned.

The Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment, and several state governments, have urged the Centre to restore the 60:40 sharing formula. The government has in the past promised to do so, but has not yet. Until that happens, one of the biggest sources of upward mobility for millions of disadvantaged Dalit youth lies in peril.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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